To W. from S. - April 20th
In my memory there is a man with slicked back black hair chain smoking on the park bench. He takes a pair of brand new ice skates from a leather bag next to his feet and puts them on. On the frozen over pond, he only moves in reverse, away from where I am standing in my sister’s passed down black coat, a size too large, so that it comes down past my knees, nothing more than a coat dress. I begin to wave to him, not a signal of hello or goodbye, but of reflex, of second nature. As he raises his hand in an attempt to wave back, a horrible cracking noise resonates outward from its source- sound before disaster.
One summer, my mother and I were hanging laundry on a line. Each piece of clothing resembled my weighted worries that clung to me like lint to the inside of a pocket. I would pin my mother’s beautiful pink silk slips up next to my own tattered, dingy and ripped school skirts. I still remember the frown on her face. All of my clothes had been taken out a few inches in the waist and the fact that I gained weight so easily disturbed my mother. I was nothing like her. All she wanted in the world was to have a daughter whose proportions made some sort of mathematical sense, bigger here, smaller there. In return, revenge, or as the form of intervention, she controlled the sizing of my portions at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and chained the cupboards up when I was home alone. She was warden of the kitchen, of her beautiful apple cheery blueberry pies; I was the inmate that knew no limit, who had no brain in their head or any sense in their spine.
That afternoon, I was pressing my thumb along the length of one of my mother’s lace sleeping gowns when everything fell silent, like pressing your ear up next to a dead mouth and not hearing a single rattled breath. Every blade of grass lay down in the yard and slept, the cat’s ears did the same as it ran into the house through the crack in the screen. The only thing I could hear was the beating of my heart, a slow pulse of sugary blood through my veins. My mother’s shrill voice cut through everything, though, like a knife through warm butter. She grabbed my left hand and yanked my body, like it was tethered to her own, into the house and down the basement stairs. Overhead horrible explosions of sound broke, like a Beethoven symphony, there was suddenly a great pounding and maximization of all noise. (Violins and then flutes, roaring all together now!) A train without a track was barreling down through the ground. I thought it would spiral straight to where we were hunching, right through the dirt and wood, sweeping my mother and I up into its great fury. All of my worries would be obliterated into a million, trillion, billion pieces, to be scattered over the world, for everyone else to carry. I would then be light, I would be capable of floating.
It didn’t, though; we escaped the storm that swallowed our whole town and even our house. For three hours my mother sat in the muddy dirt and cried for all her lost possessions- her chiffon dresses, the vintage dining room china that had red roses crawling all along the edges, the fresh babies breath in bunches that was still on the kitchen counter waiting to be places into arrangements. The possessions in the world that were perfect and unscratched, the things that were more beautiful and pure than I could ever be, were the things she cried for.
So, the day the ice broke I knew that everything would change, as well, because when something broke, everything managed to change. It was a law. There was a reciprocation involved in every movement of life- I knocked over a vase, my mother beat me with her father’s belt buckle (the same one he beat her with. More than anything it was a matter of tradition, of the morals she wished to brand into my pale, pasty skin with cold, hard metal.) I ate a slice of pink frosted cake at my grandmother’s house, I gained three pounds and in return my mother slapped that frown onto her face like it was a mask. The man with the slick backed black hair skated too closely to the thin ice, his weight gave out underneath him and he was swallowed whole- Pinocchio into the whales mouth, straight down into its belly.
That man wasn’t just a stranger skating on a pond in February while I walked my brother around the walking trail in a stroller. He meant something to me. His face matched a face I found in my mother’s wallet. In the torn black and white picture, the man is grabbing her around the waist, his large hands upon her slender little waist, and his eyes burning young and bright, like two distant suns to a planet I cannot even pronounce the name to. When I see him falling through the ice in my dreams, I only see two fire eyes collapsing into ice. It only seems fair and right that these two blistering balls be put to rest, extinguished forever.
And you, well, there was a consequence when you left for sea. Just like every occurrence in my small life, your disappearance into nothingness brought pangs of a feeling that had no name. Like being stabbed with pins in the most tender of skin or cutting open your body, removing all the organs, filling yourself with sand, stitching yourself back together, and then knowing that something isn’t right, though you can’t remember what it is, what harm you have done to yourself.
There was the smallest of sound, easily missed to those standing on the dock waving beside the children and me. But, I heard it. The sound of wood gliding over the mirror smooth surface of the Atlantic. And then, everything changed. Everyone thought the world changed when the war thundered over the banks of our town and boys went marching away, but the world really ended when you winked at me from the back of a ship heading off into the middle of a setting sun, into the eyes of the man without a name in a photograph I can’t forget.